Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Hebrews 11:32 – 12:2
11:32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection.36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.
39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
12:1Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Today is All Saints’ Day, and in observance of the day, we’re going to do something we seldom do: We’re going to think briefly about two readings, one of which is the lectionary gospel reading for today, and the other a passage from the Letter to the Hebrews. It seems to me that both readings have something important to say about the occasion.
Let’s start by thinking a little about All Saints’ Day in general.
Some Protestants shy away from observing All Saints’ Day, because we don’t venerate saints in the same way that Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians do. But it seems to me it’s a mistake to reject the idea out of hand, because the New Testament mentions the saints, just in a different sense than the way it’s used in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.
In the New Testament, the word ‘saints’ is used to refer to all the followers of Jesus, both those who are alive now and those who have gone before. In the Protestant tradition, we sometimes call those saints who are still living on earth “the church militant,” and those who have passed on from this life “the church triumphant.”
The point of All Saints’ Day is to remember those who have gone before – our ancestors in the faith. We pause to remember that their faithful discipleship and service to God’s kingdom have contributed to the life of the church, as well as to our individual lives as followers of Jesus. In some All Saints’ Day services, a candle is lit for each person who has left the church militant and joined the church triumphant in the preceding year.
In our tradition, the most popular hymn for All Saints’ Day observances is “For All the Saints Who from Their Labors Rest.”
Having said that, let’s look at the two passages that we’ve included in this Reflection for today.
The first passage is the Beatitudes. It comes from the opening verses of the part of Matthew we call “the Sermon on the Mount.” Some of the most insightful New Testament scholars say that Jesus’ point in handing down the Beatitudes was to give us a contrast between the struggles his followers would face in this world, and the celebration and blessing they will experience in the kingdom of God. That speaks directly to the distinction I mentioned above, between the church militant – which is meant to mean ‘still engaged in the struggle’ – and the church triumphant, celebrating joyfully in the heavenly kingdom.
You might remember from past Reflections that some New Testament scholars say the Beatitudes should be read by inserting “in this world” after the first clause of each one, and “in the kingdom of heaven” after the second clause. So, for instance: Blessed are those who mourn (in this world), for they will be comforted (in the kingdom of heaven).
So the Beatitudes remind us that whatever sacrifices the people of God may make – whatever persecution the saints may encounter – the blessings awaiting us in the kingdom of God far outweigh them.
The second reading comes from the Letter to the Hebrews, and it illuminates another perspective of the occasion of All Saints’ Day. The unknown author of Hebrews points to a number of leading figures of faith history, and says that they and countless others have lived their lives in faith and are now sharing in a heavenly reward.
Then it goes on to say that these people from faith history surround us “like a great cloud of witnesses” as we “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” In other words, the saints in the heavenly kingdom are ‘cheering us on’ as we live out our faith in this world.
Personally, I love that image. Most people raised in the church can remember the names and faces of lots of people who contributed to our lives of faith. Parents and grandparents. Sunday School teachers and youth leaders and pastors. People we met each Sunday in church and others who shared their faith with us in ways that helped us keep walking the path of discipleship. And now we can bear in mind the image of those people cheering us on as we strain to follow Jesus and help establish his kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven.
It seems like a wise move for Protestants to have started observing All Saints’ Day. It has some themes we need to be reminded of – at least once a year.
Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for those who have gone before, and for their role in handing down to us the faith that informs our lives. By your Spirit, empower us to live out our faith in a way that justifies their sacrifices for us – and in ways that will cause others to give thanks for us someday. Amen.
Grace and Peace,
(The other listed readings for today are Psalms 5 and 145; Isaiah 26:1-21; and Revelation 21:9 – 22:5.)